Nidal Al Achkar: A Woman of the Theatre

For Nidal Al Achkar, acting is a big thing. .التمثيل شغلة
Coming from a prominent Lebanese family, and graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, she played a key role in opening theater’s horizons, establishing improvisation workshops known as the Beirut Theater Workshop in Beirut, and founding Al Madina Theater Association for Arts and Culture. To Nidal Al Achkar the Arab world, not to say the world itself, has no borderlines, and theater, culture and arts are key to its openness.

Even though your parents were avant-gardists, how was theater considered by your family at that time?

I belong to a family were literature, culture and philosophy are key. It’s true that my father followed a political ideology he believed in, but we can’t deny that he was a writer, historian, and he strongly believed in women’s freedom. My father Asad al-Achkar is an open-minded person, not to compare with any man I met. I was lucky enough that my brothers and my husband-to-be, whom I married later on, were all that kind of Arab men, open to culture and philosophy.

Thus, when I told my father that I have chosen to be an actor and director, he didn’t hesitate. He only asked me why and I told him that I like TV, which was a magical box that enters each and everyone’s home. Therefore, I believed that through theater, TV and cinema, one can reach a different public, especially if you want to share different thoughts. No doubt, he didn’t hesitate. Although he went to jail after one year, he didn’t tell me to come back from the U.K. I stayed at the Royal Academy, finished my studies, and came back to Lebanon. He was still in prison. He stayed there for eight years.

"I was lucky enough that my brothers and my husband-to-be, whom I married later on, were all that kind of Arab men, open to culture and philosophy."

Still, sometimes, rigidity has its own culture and knowledge…

Well, rigidity abolishes knowledge, as culture is openness to others and being with the other in constant dialogue. That’s why I chose theater because it’s contemporary art, which started 2,000 years ago, not with the Greeks – contrary to what many would think – but in Mesopotamia with an amazing text I learned at university, “The Servant and the Master,” which is a dialogue between these two personalities. The art of theater is the only art where actors stands on stage and opens an endless dialogue with their audience, a dialogue that lasts for a lifetime. Those cumulative scenes build progressively the actor’s personality with its audience, and in return, its audience’s personality with its family, its city and its country. This is also due to the fact that this art doesn’t end when one leaves the theater’s space. It actually starts when one goes out and starts telling stories to the people one knows. The real importance of theater resides in this interaction between families and societies. .

What’s the importance of theater when it comes to breaking challenging norms?

Theater’s aim is highlighting shades and shadows, and lighting up everything that’s hidden. Its aim is enter the dark streets and light them up. I always heard, “haven’t you find a different topic to develop?” Well, this is the topic: ignorance, poverty, garbage, water. A government of 70 years still couldn’t build a proper infrastructure, or keep its citizens safe from diseases and offer them proper care, they did not succeed in building a good civic system.

Where do you get your strength from?

I get it from my faith in my country and art can change even though a little. If each person does some changes in one’s occupation, we could change a lot of things on a national level.

You have met a lot of people on your life, how did this enrich you?

I have benefited from each encounter in my life because I love people. I genuinely love to know them. If one tells me a story about their grandma in a village such as Kaa or Deir al-Ahmar, I learn a lot. I dig in every person I meet on the way, be it politicians, artists, people I meet through my trips, etc. There is no way I could keep a superficial relationship with people because that would be useless. That’s why I’d prefer to go to a marriage in a village and not anywhere else. All these things, such as meeting authentic people in villages for instance, made me love people and benefit from their experience.

"I have benefited from each encounter in my life because I love people. I genuinely love to know them."

Can you tell us more about the actor and the director you are?

As an actor, I would have to convince people that I am the personality I am representing on stage, be it Ophelia, Cleopatra or May Ziade. If I was a director, I would need to have a global vision of the scene I’m presenting and to convince my audience with the conception I have. Besides, in the Arab world, it’s not easy for a woman to have a theater. I conceived a theater because I felt that after the war, the youth would need a place to express themselves. This oasis is a place of hope for the youth, of expression, innovation, dream and creation. All these components need freedom, a place where one would feel safe to express everything they need. Al Madina Theater is at the heart of Beirut, and it’s the city’s heart, beating with music and plays.

"I conceived a theatre because I felt that after war, the youth would need a place to express themselves. This oasis is a place of hope, expression, innovation, dream, and creation for the youth."

What is your ultimate dream?

My dream is that one day, we would be able to fight stubbornness, drugs and sectarianism, with this elevated form of art. Imagine if we had an ambulant theater in Saida, Tyre, or an ambulant library, for young people to find their cultural hubs out of Beirut. Because I believe that culture is the best weapon we have to get people away from all negative aspects of society. Culture is Lebanon’s real face.

Throughout my work and relationships, I was lucky enough to meet amazing people. I am writing a book, which I hope will be finished in two years that relates all these enriching encounters. All the people I met or the ones who visit my home with Fouad Neim are really amazing persons. I have no place for mediocrity in my life.

"Imagine if we had an ambulant theatre in Saida, Tyre..."

What is the role of rebellion in your life?

Without rebellion and faith I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish anything in my life. My parents taught me to refuse everything that was bad in my life. Besides, we believed in “Loubnan Annahda,” which means the Renaissance of Lebanon. When my father died, he still believed in Lebanon. Although they had failed to build a citizen. They had no vision nor plans. They wouldn’t build one country driven through one common goal. On the contrary, they kept on dividing us. It’s the career of the abyss. If we fall from one side, we fall into the banality of things. If we fall from the other side, we find its treasures and highlight taboo topics such as incest, women beaten and everything people are afraid to talk about.

Who is Lebanon?

Lebanon is the Lebanon that should become. The utmost image that looks like Lebanon, is the one of the renaissance, with the faces of Gibran Khalil Gibran, May Ziade and Michael Neaime, Cheble al-Gmayel, Sarrouf. Those people are the faces of culture, open widely to the Arab world. That’s what we need to stick to right now, empower people who would lift Lebanon’s spot up in the world. That’s why we long for a Lebanon that looks like its inhabitants, villages, schools, coffee shops.

Are actors born actors or one can learn acting?

Each person is an actor and I believe that each one can have fun putting oneself into someone else’s shoes. In order to become a professional actor, one has to learn some skills. Still, professional actors always admire the amateurs’ skills and stays passionate about theater. Acting never becomes an occupation. Still, talent needs to be combined to know-how in order to have a great outcome. Julia Kassar once stated that Nidal al-Ashkar teaches the actors as if they have never been to university. I think it’s because I have learned many techniques and skills from the Royal Academy, and [English theater director] Joan Littlewood. This mosaic I have built is the tool I teach actors with. Everything God has granted us can be used in theater.

I would like to add that acting is a very difficult profession, and especially in our country. They need to take acting very seriously. It needs self-respect, respect for others and training. First and foremost, it has to be based on talent. I advise them to stick to theater and not to drift to TV, as they will lose a lot of the personality’s traits. In TV, there is no time at all to build and develop the character.

Who were the women of influence in your life?

My mom is the woman who taught me joy and courage. She was a woman of faith who was afraid of nothing. She believed in my father’s vision. She was beautiful and generous.

Joan Littlewood is a woman who taught me everything related to my profession as she was the mother of modern theater based on improvisation. Besides, all kind of creativity needs freedom.

There is also one woman who taught me a lot: May Kamal Jumblatt, who is Walid Jumblatt’s mother. She’s a great, unique, clever and cultivated woman. Our friendship lasted 40 years. She taught me so many things about friendship and elegance and laughter and the sense of value of life itself.

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